SEPTEMBER 2007 – NO. 17
Beauty That Shines Through
The second short story selection by Guest Fiction Editor Michelle Wildgen
I was up all night and am very sleepy. Gwyneth Paltrow is in front of my acting class, saying something I'm not following. She's fielding questions engaged in a back and forth with a dissatisfied student trying to make a point. I don't like Gwyneth Paltrow. Her acting strikes me as ungracious. When I must watch it for the sake of the movie, I take measures to block it out lest I absorb it and inadvertently imitate it myself. Acting is mysterious; my successful performances often seem out of my control.
In person, she's pretty in an ordinary way. She's distracted, guarded. And though there's a density, an almost sound-absorbing quality to her presence, she is Gwyneth Paltrow, and when we spread out to stretch, I find a spot near her.
I say: "Don't you think we have to make ourselves look as good as possible in this profession to reach as many people as we can with our art?"
She gives me a bored look. "That's one aspect of it. It's not everything."
I think our art is ourselves. And maybe it's because I'm so sleepy, but this thought strikes me as thrilling and sublime, encompassing ancestry and day-to-day choices, explaining mine and Gwyneth's and everyone's triumphs and failures.
She walks away with her hands on her hips to the middle of the stage, then turns to the open theater, stares into the balcony and pulls her hair into a ponytail.
After class I have just enough time to go home and pack a little bag and get a taxi to LaGuardia and make the last flight of the day for North Carolina. All flights tomorrow are booked. In order to afford the flight, I have to call the Visa people and get a credit extension of 300 dollars. I have to talk to a supervisor for this, and she lets me know she's doing me a great favor.
I'm so tired that I somehow manage to nod off on the plane, though it's packed and I have a middle seat and the plane smells like a toilet and the cheap perfume sprayed by one of the flight attendants to cover up the toilet smell. The plane looks to be from the 1970s. A brown and sticky looking soda spill runs in veins down the exit door and no one has wiped it up. I feel as if I've made the decision to end my life by boarding this piece of shit and trusting it to fly me home. I lean my head back and fall asleep with my mouth open. Rest flows through me so hard I quiver at my ears and toes.
Since he was 13, my brother, Caleb, has been in and out of low-level security juvenile detention centers and on dependent probation, mainly for burglary and vandalism. There was also an aggravated assault charge. But then on one spectacular night in his 16th year, he and his best friend stole a car, robbed a liquor store, and in the middle of the night returned and set fire to the place they'd robbed. It was a little old lone ABC store right over the South Carolina border. They ditched the car at a nearby creek bank and set fire to it too. The fire must have fizzled out because the police picked up my brother's fingerprints all over the steering wheel. So then it was on to high-level security juvenile detention.
When he got out of juvie, he really made a go of it, staying clean, drinking Cokes, going to AA and Nar-Anon. He got himself a small apartment, a cat named Mr. Ed, and a job at a factory that made cardboard boxes. He cashed his paychecks and kept the money in a jar at home. When I'd come over he'd show me the wad of cash, telling me all over again the many reasons you can't trust banks. He'd go to his closet and pull out new shirts to show off to me, turning them under the light, going: "Those buttons are made out of real coconut shell."
I didn't ever know what was going to become of him, but I suppose I knew the job at the factory and all wouldn't last.
I remember he'd taken to listening to a Christian Rock station. One day his favorite female announcer asked her listening audience if anyone had a car to donate. There was a man who'd had a run of bad luck but now he'd gotten a job and could support his family. The only way he could take the job was if he had his own reliable transportation. Caleb called the station immediately, gave over his old Chevelle that very day. That started him giving away his belongings, more and more, until finally one day he gave Mr. Ed to an ex-girlfriend and the next day ran Mom's Honda into a telephone pole. The pole crashed through the windshield on the passenger side. Yet he walked away from the accident unharmed. The way I picture it is him striding like the Terminator through wreckage and flames that won't burn his skin. But I know that's not right. There was no fire.
It was armed robbery that got him seven years in prison.
Prison. These places operate under the archaic, Old Testament notion that punishment is effective at altering behavior. It's a private jail, part of the growing prison industrial complex, so he's put to work doing jobs like making circuit boards and waterbeds, and sewing Victoria's Secret underwear, getting paid nineteen cents an hour. That's eight hours of work for a dollar fifty-two.
He wouldn't see or talk to me or Mom for a year after getting locked up, but recently the jail doctors had some news for us. They told Mom that he'd begun to complain about an odd sensation. He felt he was walking around in a dead man's skin. The flesh surrounding his bones seemed nothing more than meat. Meat that was already dead. He heard somewhere that scientists were finding ways to grow edible meat around scaffolding, and coming up with inventive ways to exercise the meat so that it would taste right. The image haunted him, and he began to experience himself as just such meat hung on just such scaffolding, being exercised. He started burning and cutting his skin in order to become aware of his own personal self, to feel alive in the body.
He did the most damage to himself on the assembly line, with blades, tooling implements.
The doctors say with his history, and now the self mutilation, he's a danger to his own self. They want to try a therapy to help him, but my Mom had to assign the rights to do it. Insulin shock therapy. In a hospital room, they'll take Caleb into insulin shock, and keep him in shock for six weeks, burning away his memory. Without memories of the past, they reason, he'll stop trying to hurt himself. If it's effective in reconfiguring his brain, it may shorten his jail time. All fixed up, he can be released back into society.
To me, this seems worse than any pain Caleb could think up on his own. And I know he wants to do it for the experience of it, like trying a new drug. Mom has been torn up about it, but finally decided to trust the jail doctors' prescription. What does she know about medicine, after all, and her little boy is hurting himself with purpose and determination. He wants to die. I begged her not to do it. I said don't do this. Do not do this. This is a medical procedure, she says, they know what they're doing. You're living all the way up in New York, you don't know anything about it, you're not a doctor, he won't feel any pain. She says, I'm the one living this, you don't know what it's like to have a son and go on living after what he's put me through.
The therapy will start soon, day after tomorrow. She wants me home at the start of it. She feels awfully alone. She's been calling me every night to talk about it, usually in the dead middle of the night, which is why I haven't slept.
This therapy, like electroshock, was used in the 50s and 60s, then fell away from practice. Now the mental health profession is taking them both up again. It's as if we're in a solar eclipse that lasts for four minutes and then keeps lasting, the planets now moving in a new way that keeps the earth blocked from the sun.
During the layover in Pennsylvania I buy a large coffee and some Nicorette, since you can't smoke anywhere in the airport. The gum numbs my mouth and makes my head prickly at the roots of my hair.
Back on the plane, my new seatmate wants to talk. Something about me tells people they can unload their troubles, that I'll take them in. I think it's because of my acting. I have to keep my heart open to experience in the world, and people sense this. I get it walking down the street in New York. People catch my eye and their faces become enlivened as if they're just on the verge of unburdening themselves to me.
After telling me that he hates TV and never watches it, my seatmate says I'm not going to believe this, but just last month, he got fired from his job, his wife left him and his car blew up — all his fault. He started talking and didn't let up, glancing out the window, checking altitudes on the descent to gauge how much time he had left to get it all in.
I'm in my mother's car. There are very few cars on the wide expanse of the Billy Graham Parkway. We pass under equally spaced streetlamps and the regular rhythm of light and dark makes it hard for me to hold my eyes open. I rest my head against the window. The window is cool and in my imagination takes the shape of a clear soft orb that will receive the weight of my head while I sleep. My mother pulls me back by patting my leg.
"Tell me about your acting, sweetheart. How much longer are you going to keep this up, anyway?"
"Keep what up?"
"The acting, the pounding the pavement, the rejection. How long you think you can go on like this?" She lets down both of our windows and the humid night air forces its way into my nose and mouth. "That better?"
I roll up my window. I look over at her and she turns to me with a smile and wide eyes. Her eyes are open so wide I think it must hurt to hold them that way. "What are you asking me?"
"Oh sweetheart, I believe in you, I really do. I just wish I could tell those casting directors how great you are."
"Well, it takes time."
"Yes but how much time?"
"I'm only 27."
"But isn't that old in your profession? It's old to start another career, I'll tell you that."
"I don't want to start another career."
"But you're happy? Living like you do? Three girls in a one-bedroom apartment, that's something you're okay about."
"Can we change the subject, please?"
"I'm sorry. I said I wouldn't push. I'm sorry. It's just —"
"Mom ... ."
"I want so much more for you."
"So do I."
"You're college-educated. Jeannie Hart is an executive at Nabisco, just a year older than you. An executive! And to think of you in that apartment … the mice, the roaches, the heat, the filth. And the noise! I don't know how you stand the noise."
I must look pitiful because she takes a glance at me and then says sorry and makes a motion with her hand like she's locking her mouth shut with a key.
My eyes are dry, and anywhere I look, they want to stay there and close: the broken line of the highway, the soothing blue digital dashboard lights. The clock reads 1:30. The flashing colon between the one and the 30 has a message for me. It is: sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep.
I roll down my window. I reach in my bag for a cigarette, push in the lighter and squint at Mom, daring her to speak. She smoked for ten years. The first ten years of my life. It's probably why I love cigarette smoke so much, early memory.
"Oh! Don't tell me you're smoking again. I thought that phase was over."
"It's here again."
"Are you addicted?"
"No. Definitely not."
"You're going to get wrinkles around your mouth, you know. You're too old to be careless with your looks. You're going to get that little yellow nicotine mustache. And yellow teeth, and yellow fingernails. Then you really won't land any acting jobs." She glares at me. "Bad decision. Bad bad bad decision."
"I don't want to talk about Caleb." And then we're quiet for a long moment, just cruising down the empty highway. "Sometimes, I swear to god, I wish he'd never been born."
"You don't mean that."
"I do. I mean it. He's been nothing but grief to me. Just like his father, only more charming. More cunning. Smarter. Ever since he was a little baby, I knew he was going to be trouble. You can tell that about babies, just you wait and see. You'll have babies one day, then you'll see."
"How could you possibly tell that?"
"I could tell by his eyes."
"And he could tell you thought he was going to be trouble, since he was a baby. And round and round we go."
"Let's talk about something else, my darling. Does your agent have any ideas for you, about getting your career off the ground? You must be afraid she's going to drop you if you don't make her some money soon."
I inhale my smoke as if I'm sucking on the very breath of life until I get the numb dizziness I'm after.
"She does, actually. She says I need to think about propaganda. Get my propaganda down."
"You know, like one girl she represents, Crystal, she's got a trashy propaganda. She gets cast for all the sort of drug-addicted tough girls. Changed her name to Crystal to fit the propaganda. She's doing pretty well. Then there's Jackie. She's got thick healthy hair. Bookish. They tell clients she's a student at Columbia but she's not, not at all. She shows up at auditions with books in her arms. That sort of thing. Propaganda. It's a way to sell you, these casting directors need it fed to them. And Audrey, her thing's androgynous. I don't know what my propaganda is."
"Maybe. That's part of it. I need to think about it."
Some people have propaganda they don't even know about. Bad propaganda. In New York I see women who scare me. Little older than me and hardened. The years of waiting tables and rejection has rutted them, enlarged their pores, and they've let go the effort it takes to present themselves in a new, alluring way.
My Mom's propaganda is workaday professional, but cheap. She is put upon and worried and has had it up to here.
My dad's propaganda is gone. Stuck forever in my mind at the end of our driveway wearing a white terrycloth shirt with tiny red stripes, hugging me and telling me he'll see me in the future. That's what he said when he left for good. "Ill see you in the future," as if we were both embarking on time travel and would meet on the other side. His propaganda is out there. Off the grid. Never looked back. Possibly dead. Gone for good.
And Caleb? I'm already dead.
The kitchen smells cold. It's the middle of the night. But there's also the unmistakable spicy, sweet, vinegary smell of the pickling syrup Mom uses for peaches. There's a stockpot full of syrup cooling on the stove, and, beside that, two baskets of peaches in the double sink. The scent recalls childhood holidays with honey baked ham and rolls, and my dad still at home, the peaches in my grandma's crystal dish.
Mom hugs me around my waist and looks with me at the syrup as if we're looking at a sleeping baby. "I thought I'd make some pickled peaches to bring to Caleb. They're the first of the season. You know how much he loves them. Has since he was a baby, he can just eat them by the jar full."
"Well, you've got a job ahead of you."
"I was hoping you'd help me."
"It's two o'clock in the morning. I can't even hold my eyes open."
"But you have to help me, you have to." Mom has never been able to handle the sealing part of canning. She's never been able to coax all the air bubbles out of the peaches in their syrup before the jars go into their 20-minute boiling water bath. An air bubble will ruin the can, poison the peaches.
"You go on to bed," she says, "I'll parboil the peaches now and get the skin off, and we can do the canning early tomorrow morning. We need to be on the road at 7:30. The syrup has to cool anyway. Open the fridge for me, will you hon?"
She hefts the steaming pot into the refrigerator.
"Go on to bed. I'll wake you."
"Not too early."
"Not too early."
The sheets are cool and smell like the cedar linen closet. My old bed. I open the window and catch the scent of the creek in the woods behind our house. The wind must be blowing over the muddy water and then on into my room. I'm pulled so instantly into sleep that I don't have time to do my normal before-sleep routine of finding a memory of Caleb and going over and over it, getting every detail, seeing where it leads my thoughts. Ever since news of this therapy, I'm stockpiling memories to watch over. But tonight he's everywhere with me in this old familiar house. He's in the smell of the cool spring night air, the steady rumble of the attic fan, the sounds out the window: crickets and insanely loud frogs. The grandfather clock in the front hall chimes: one, two.
And chimes again. Four a.m. My mother's sitting on my bed. I feel her presence in my sleep. She's shaking my leg, waking me up, going, Rise and shine, sleepy head, time to wake up.
I resist. I kick, push at her, say, No, no, no, go away, leave me alone, I want you gone.
She says: "I'm turning the light on. I have coffee right here for you."
"Don't turn the light on, please, not the light."
"I thought of your propaganda," she says, still in the dark, "and it's a good one. Ready to hear it? Beauty that shines through. What do you think of that? I think it's perfect. Beauty that shines through."
It's 7:30 and I'm loading the warm jars of pickled peaches into boxes and setting them in the back of Mom's car. It is already 85 degrees. The katydids in the trees sound electric.
"What's he going to do with all these peaches?"
"Used to be he'd eat every last one of them and then drink the juice. I don't know, he may want to share them with some friends."
I wonder if my brother will still love these peaches after his therapy. I wonder if he'll remember loving them, or if it will be as if he is tasting them for the first time.
My mother's skin looks thin and aging in the morning sun. Her outfit is making me sad. It's too bright, too crisply pressed and flowery.
My cell phone rings then — my agent. The Law & Order people called. An actress canceled at the last minute and they need someone today for an under-five-minute spot. My agent has convinced them to go with me. I need to go right now. Wardrobe is waiting for me. When she finds out I'm in North Carolina, all is quiet on the line. Then she hangs up on me! Before the line goes dead I hear her saying, "I don't believe this," to someone in her office. I dial her back.
"I thought you wanted to be an actress," she screams, "a professional! What the hell are you doing in North Carolina?" I assure her up and down that I can be in the studio at one o'clock. She puts me on hold and calls Law & Order.
She comes back. "Okay, I told them you were in an interview with Paper magazine, which is the only reason they still want you. You can bypass wardrobe and go straight to shooting but you have to be there by one o'clock. Don't blow this. I repeat, do not blow this. If you're not there by one, they'll be very unhappy. They'll go immediately with someone else and will never use you again. Understand?"
I do. I understand perfectly.
When I tell Mom, she says, "Well," and folds her arms across her chest. A look passes over her face. I'm good at reading looks. I have to be for my profession. Her look is one of challenge, and of jealousy and skepticism. A forced smile, a flash of the eyes. She's trying to show that she's happy for me, but her mind's working to find a way to belittle this. I don't give her a chance. I take my cell phone inside, pour some iced tea, start calling for flights.
The jail is on the way to the airport, and Mom convinces me to stop quickly in with her to see Caleb. We have plenty of time, she says. I take the old family station wagon, and she takes her brand new Honda so I can leave and go to the airport while she stays as long as she can with Caleb, and talks to the doctors, etc. She'll get a friend to drive her to the airport later for the car; it'll be one of her welcome distractions.
So I follow my Mom down the wavy highway, between tobacco fields, their leaves nodding in the wind. I tune into a radio station that's doing a two for Tuesday type of deal. Pink Floyd. Images of Caleb rush in with the song just as if I'm going to sleep and looking for a memory to keep hold of. The melody brings back high school, Dad recently gone. For a while after Dad left, Caleb and I had this running game where we'd scare each other. We'd be alone in the house at night and I'd go: "Did you hear that … Shhh … what was that noise? Is someone upstairs?" Or we'd be watching TV and he'd swear to god he just saw a deranged lumberjack in our woods and we'd turn off the TV and all the lights and close the blinds and spend the next hour frozen still in the dark, listening. Even though we both knew it was a game, it seemed as if the crazy energy of our fear was powerful enough to conjure every killer within fifty miles of our house.
The game escalated. Once I told him I was going out but circled back and crept into his room, hid in his closet, and when I had my chance, jumped out at him and watched him yell and tremble as if he'd been hit with an electric surge. He got me back, though. I came home from school one day and called around for him, figured I was alone. I ate a snack, watched some Oprah, called some friends, sang along to the radio, got out my homework. All the time he was lying in the living room pretending to be dead. I was hanging my coat in the hall closet when I glimpsed his stiff legs and combat boots. I stood, suspended in time there in the hall, watching his still legs for seconds that pass like hours in my memory. Then I started calling his name, ran in to him, shook him, yelling at him to wake up until he started laughing in my face.
I wonder: if you don't share a memory with someone else, how is that memory any different than a dream?
My eyelids are heavy and every time I close them it feels so good.
I shake myself awake. Look for Mom ahead of me on the road. But in a few minutes my confused mind has me believing she's following me, and I don't see her in the rearview. A truck blows past me, honking its horn. I look at my speedometer. I am doing 25. I turn up the radio, open all the windows, smoke.
The prison is down an old gravel farm road. We drive a long way down that road before I start seeing fence. It's not what I expected at all. An old factory, turned into a prison, layered around with razor-wire chain-link. It's a vast brick compound with eerie glass windows. High, delicate factory windows, not prison windows. It seems barbaric, surreal. As if escape would be simple. But that if you got caught trying to escape, they'd torture you for six months in some kinky way. There must be acres and acres of unused space in there.
I pull into the gates behind Mom. She's talking to the guard in front through her window, showing him I.D., gesturing at me. I hear another guard nearby call, "Watch 'em bugs now." I almost forget the comment, but then the air starts to be filled with bugs. Little flying gnat-wasp creatures. I see the guard fanning them away.
"They're riding that storm front in there." He points across the landscape to the horizon. I don't see any storm, but a wind is blowing through the car. Bugs are crawling into the air vent; a couple buzz against the windshield.
The gates open and Mom starts to drive through. I don't move forward. When she sees I'm not behind her she stops, then backs up. Then waits inside her car right past the open gates. I get out of the car and walk to her.
Why is it always the charmers, the ones with spirit, whom the world wants to kill? Caleb too, yes, he's responsible. Seems like he was born knowing it's a short life. They've got him up there now, inside this coming storm, readying his torture chamber. But still he's embellishing a story to all those gathered around him, a sparkle in his eye, checking in with his listeners. He's a physical storyteller, he gets to his feet, acts out motions. I've seen others imitate his tone, his gestures. Or maybe I'm wrong about him now, what do I know? After all, this place is nothing I could've ever imagined. Maybe he's in his bunk with his beautiful eyes closed all day and night now, defeated and too skinny, jail clothes hanging off his frame, the wounds on his skin in various stages of healing.
"Look," I say, "I can't go. I have to get going." I cross my arms against the wind. "I don't have time, Mom, I'm already pushing it on time." The wind that's carrying the bugs smells heavy, like rain, and waste, and is also carrying dirt, and small dried pieces of weed and hay. "There's no way I can go. I don't know what I was thinking."
"That's right. You go on back." She slowly undoes her seatbelt to get out and hug me goodbye. I know I'll remember that hug just like it's a home movie, and that wind and the way the bugs flew into our hair, us shaking our heads and pulling at each other's hair to get them out, even as more hit our mouths, necks.
At one o'clock I'm getting my makeup done and memorizing my lines. I'm supposed to look tired, and the makeup artist gets compliments for her work. I'm to play a woman who's broken up about her boyfriend's murder, getting questioned at the morgue by Detective Robert Goren.
I'm given ten minutes to emotionally prepare for the scene, but I don't need that long. I picture my brother in that prison complex. I didn't need to be there to experience it. On this last day before his memory gets wiped clean, Mom and Caleb can eat together in a special room. Mother has added the peaches to his jail food plate. But the vision takes a turn then: it's my Mom young and smiling, naïve, holding her baby, Caleb, at her shoulder, gently bouncing him and rubbing his back to soothe him. I look in his eyes to see if what Mom said was true about knowing the trouble that's to come, but he just has normal, soft blue, happy baby eyes. He's such a little infant that he can't yet hold his head up on his own, but he's smiling, and those eyes, those eyes. I hover over them in this room.
Back on set, the tears start flowing in a steady stream. The director, thinking this is a fragile state for me to maintain, calls action, excited.
Vincent D'Onofrio says, "Marla, I know this must be hard for you, but I'm going to have to ask you a few questions." He has walked into this scene, present. He's brought a stillness into the room, a sense that now is all there is. It's a present I want to live in. I want to stay. No past, no future, only listening, responding. Time stretching out and out.
I cry through the scene, with restraint, just as I am supposed to. My voice shakes with genuine emotion, and I give with perfect timing. It's as if I really am crying for my murdered boyfriend, my one true love.
At the end of the scene I'm supposed to break down in sobs and I do. I cry in a rare ragged-breath way that leaves me lightheaded and exhilarated, as if I've been out in the ocean waves too long, drinking in salt water. All around the set, everyone is silent. They're witnesses at the scene of a tragedy.
The director calls, "And cut. Excellent. Let's run it again."
Original art courtesy Rob Grom.
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